MEQUON, Wisconsin — D.J. Carton already knows what it feels like to be a college basketball star.
Or, at least what it felt like when he was 3.
Basically as soon as Carton could walk, he would spend hours in his grandparents’ basement playing full-on mock college basketball games with his grandpa, Gene Meeker.
They would hop on the couch and pretend to drive to the games, with Carton asking, “Are we there yet?” every few minutes.
Meeker would announce his grandson’s name in the starting lineup, and the future five-star point guard would sprint into the basement, high-fiving his imaginary teammates.
They would sing the national anthem as Carton stood at attention — just like he saw the stars do on TV.
And finally, the game would start. Carton played on a little plastic hoop as Meeker provided play-by-play and color commentary.
“They’d have to yell at us to get out of the basement,” Meeker said, recalling those imaginary games with vivid detail. “We knew he was going to be a future ‘something’ in basketball. In fact, he told me when he was really young, ‘Grandpa, when I get to the NBA, I’m going to buy you a new car.'”
Meeker doesn’t have that new car yet. But his grandson’s NBA dream is closer than even his 3-year-old self could have imagined.
Carton took a significant step toward that dream a couple weeks ago by committing to Ohio State. The five-star, top-20 point guard from Bettendorf was also considering Michigan and Indiana.
Some outside his inner circle were surprised. For much of Carton’s recruitment, Michigan was considered the favorite. And Indiana was catching buzz in the days leading up to his commitment.
But, as it turns out, the Buckeyes always stood on their own in Carton’s head.
“I feel like they prioritized me more than any other university,” he said.
Here’s an inside look at the moments leading up to Carton’s decision — and the liberating hours after his commitment, when a 17-year-old kid got to be a kid again.
Usually, official visits feature some kind of pitch from the head coach — a final, face-to-face conversation about why the coach’s school is right for the prospect.
Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann gave Carton his final pitch in the team’s film room.
He showed Carton footage of former Buckeye and current NBA point guards Mike Conley and D’Angelo Russell. He told Carton he could be the next great lefty point guard to wear a Buckeye jersey.
Then, he laid out a three-year plan for Carton if he came to Columbus …
Year One: Win Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Year Two: Win the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year and a national championship.
Year Three: Play in the NBA.
“I thought their plan was right on,” Carton said. “I could tell that they took a lot of time in doing this whole visit for me, especially during the evaluation period. I thought that said a lot about them as a university.”
Carton bonded with his future teammates during the visit, too. They went to a water park, played NBA 2K and Madden tournaments, and hung out at the dorms. Carton watched a couple workouts and weight-lifting sessions. He also talked to faculty in the communications and journalism departments, as he wants to become a broadcaster after his basketball career.
Buckeyes made all the right moves
Ohio State might have sealed the deal with Carton before he ever began the official visit.
As he’s said before, Carton almost committed to Michigan after his official visit to Ann Arbor in late June. He had originally scheduled his Ohio State official for after July’s evaluation periods. But as much as he liked the Buckeyes, he knew Michigan might not be comfortable waiting to land a point guard until August and could move on to other options.
Then, the Cartons and Ohio State coaches found a loophole.
Carton could visit Columbus during July if he did so during an evaluation period — but the coaches would need to be willing to come back to campus and miss out on several of the precious few days of July recruiting.
It was no question for Holtmann and his staff.
Of course they’d put other recruiting on hold for Carton.
“That whole staff could have been spread all over watching grassroots, AAU basketball. And they said, ‘No, we need to make this guy a priority,'” Bettendorf head coach Curtis Clark said. “It’s kind of unprecedented.”
Carton said seeing Ohio State coaches rearrange their recruiting schedule just to host him July 11-12 (during July’s first evaluation period) spoke volumes.
“I’ve been their guy,” he said. “They didn’t recruit any other point guards for 2019. They said they were going to stick with me until I was ready to make a decision. That means a lot. I want someone to like me for who I am and trust me.”
Of course, it helps that Russell reached out to Carton, too.
“He was telling me about how special Ohio State is and how you’ll be remembered forever,” said Carton, who was wearing a Buckeye shirt with Russell’s name on the back. “How he could have gone to all these big-time schools and things like that, and how he was recruited by all these blue-bloods — and how Ohio State meant something to him, and how special it was.”
The drive home from Columbus
Carton knew he wanted to be a Buckeye in the car ride home from Columbus.
“I got (the gut feeling) in the car ride back,” he said. “I called my mom and told her right on the spot that I was going to go there. They were like, ‘Well, you might want to wait a couple days and just think it out,’ and I was like, ‘No, this is it. I’ve had a way different feeling on this visit.’ It just stuck out to me. Something stuck out to me and it was that gut feeling.”
That “gut feeling” though — what was that like?
“Just an excitement — bouncing off the walls,” Carton said. “Just talking about the future of the Buckeyes. D’Angelo Russell hit me up. It was just an exciting moment for me. This has been my life for the past year and half, two years. I feel relieved, and I’m sure my mom does too. She’s been a huge part of this. She’s been on the phone just as much as I have, working her tail off on her end.
“Right when I told my dad in the car that I was going to go to Ohio State, my brother started screaming and he said, ‘Yes! This is where I wanted you to go!’ I’m just happy that my family’s happy with my decision and we can all look forward to this moment.”
Putting the phone away
Shortly after announcing his commitment, Carton put away his phone. His dad, Dale, and little brother, Rylen, were out of town for a basketball tournament.
So, he took his mom, Jennifer, and grandparents, Nancy and Gene, out to eat. He wanted to go someplace special — especially for his grandparents, who have been every bit as involved in Carton’s life as his parents.
He had two options: Chuck E. Cheese or Azteca 3, both places Gene Meeker would take him to when he was growing up. Carton picked Azteca 3 and ordered his usual — steak fajita quesadilla with chips and pico de gallo.
“I’m a little big for Chuck E. Cheese nowadays,” he laughed.
Meeker remembers taking his grandson to Azteca 3 all the time, just like he remembers calling Carton’s imaginary games in the basement.
Does he still do commentary for Carton’s games in his head?
“A little bit,” he said, with a smile spreading ear to ear.